Returning to the Caucasus
”-Dombaj-what?” I said to my Swiss friend Andi over the phone when he gave me a call one afternoon in November more than a year ago. I’d never heard about a mountain called Dombaj-Ul’gen. Nor was I rather impressed by its elevation of 4.046 meters.
Skhara, the wild looking twin peaks of Ushba and the beautiful Kazbek were the mountains in the Caucasus familiar to me. And of course Elbrus, which I climbed by myself 8 years ago. Dombaj-Ul’gen remained unknown to me. However, after Andi enthusiastically told me about its wild and rugged ridges and its very demanding UIAA grading being D-, I understood this summit must be a rather special one. In addition to this, this mountain also turned out to be a country high point, as it is the highest summit of the Republic of Abkhazia, a country which I also wasn’t very familiar with.
After a while I did some research on the mountain and I discovered that Dombaj-Ul’gen had a very interesting climbing history. Although it was not that easy to find any good material not being printed in Russian. I soon found out that Dombaj-Ul’gen was a kind of hidden gem in the western Caucasus, a mountain which was very much climbed especially in the 60’ and 70’, but not that frequently scaled today. It is situated in a very wild and beautiful part of the Caucasus, with the small mountain village Dombaj at its feet.
My trip to Elbrus in 2008 was in clear remembrance. It was so nice and peaceful hiking around the slopes and the green meadows around Terskol. Thus I felt very much willing to return to this mountainous region once more. Also, visiting the Caucasus with Andi would make it even more interesting since he had been in the region many times before and spoke Russian.
Time to prepare
Arriving to Russia
In the early afternoon we drove up to the hotel which had been assigned to us in Dombaj. Aleks we found out was a hell of a driver and made this rather long ride a pleasant one. Before we came to Dombaj we made a stop at the less charming city of Cherkessk where we picked up our border zone permits after some mandatory queuing around at the not too busy permit office.
Almost immediately Aleks took us on a brisk acclimatization hike into one of the neighboring valleys. Soon we got a glance at our objective, the 4.046 meter high Dombaj-Ul’gen looked like a gigantic rock massif in the last sunrays of the afternoon.
V- rock around Dombaj
The following two days we spent on vertical rocks handpicked by Aleks in Dombaj and in the neighboring village of Terbeda. We soon found out that Aleks was a brilliant mountain man. A man of few words, with a steady hand, humble tone and with utmost focus on safety, he managed us up and down the rocks.
As always in the mountains, my obsession of the weather gets worse and worse as closer to D day. The weather in the Caucasus can be rather unpredictable and the forecast for our three days was not too good. Taking this into account we of course had one extra day in reserve in case of bad weather, but still we were in need of two consecutive days of good weather for a safe climb. We both knew that the technical summit ridge would become a very nasty and dangerous business if we were to be caught in a thunder storm or a severe snow blizzard.
Going to high camp
It was rather obvious that not many people hiked in this part of the valley as our hiking trail was more or less overgrown by wild vegetation.
At the time all four of us reached the base of the glacier and Aleks placed his first ice screw in the moderately steep icy slope, the weather seemed to clear up and the annoying drizzle stopped.
Further up the glacier flattened out and we climbed unroped up to a little rocky saddle with some sharp gendarmes. What a great place for rock climbing practice, I said to myself.
At this point we got a good look at our objective. Now the north ridge pf Dombaj-Ul’gen did not look as vertical as it looked before. Our ridge did not look less forceful because of that though. Immediately to our right we saw the enormous east wall, which looked totally impossible to climb.
After the saddle the terrain flattened out and we made our way towards our bivouac place. We scrambled up a steep gully with loose rocks in various size. With our heavy backpacks this became a challenging act of balance. In the late afternoon we arrived to our camp site just below the Fisher Saddle at around 3.500 meter. Here we pitched our two Redfox tents and began to collect water from a nearby stream in order to get some
When we got up later in the break of dawn and sipped on a hot cup of tea, the threatening thunderstorm seemed to have diverted and the sky did not look too bad. Total happiness.
Along the north ridge
After half an hour it was time to take out the rope since the ridge had become steeper and a fall would have had a serious impact. Aleks and me formed the first rope team and Andi and Saša the second. In the lower sections we went on a running belay and we moved rather quickly over the rocks in classic II-terrain. After around 3 pitches we came to a crux which contained of a vertical wall. This part was fairly exposed but I recall that I never really took a good look at the void underneath me.
When Aleks gave me a signal to follow him, he started to take in rope and I immediately negotiated the crux as there was no time for hesitation. Half way up I was forced to perform a quick and airy shift of hands in the dry and solid rock. Before my move, I made sure I had good tension in the climbing rope above me. Falling was not an option.
According to the route description Andi had dug out from several Russian climbing sites, we knew there were at least 2 crux sections to be mastered. In between, the terrain was of various grade I-II.
Our progress was good and safe and I think we kept a good pace. The last crux offered a little chimney which required some extra strength. The rock was generally in great shape and due to the improved weather with some occasional sunshine, the rock was dry too. It was a pleasure to climb, I was thrilled and enjoyed every single pitch.
Aleks knowledge of the route helped a lot. During the climb our party climbed faster so we soon lost contact with Andi and Saša. For Saša it was his first time on this mountain so he was not familiar with all the twists and turns of the route.
After three hours on the ridge we stood on the main summit of Dombaj-Ul’gen. The summit consisted out of a few large rocks and to the east a couple of meters lower, there was a small plateau, large enough for a small tent. Here Aleks and me sat and drank some tea and ate some cookies. I was trying to take in the breathtaking scenery around me. To the north I saw the village of Dombaj deep down in the green valley. To the south I looked into Abkhazia. To the east I was looking down into the abyss of the Buul’gen valley and to the west I saw the ridge which continued towards the western summit which is 4.036 meter.
Long way down
We had to build stands for each pitch using webbings. Sometimes the rock offered us excellent natural belay points and sometimes not.
After a while it got rather tiresome on the ridge and the rappelling became slightly monotonous. The colors on the mountain became soft and warm as it turned towards sunset and we watched an absolute brilliant sunset with big fluffy clouds and an orange flaming sun.
The darkness came very sudden and soon we found ourselves rappelling down into a black abyss. All the time we felt safe and sound and the entire exercise was very exciting. We were both very impressed by Aleks who down climbed the ridge with no belay at all in darkness. We only saw his headlamp moving far above us.
After around six hours of constant rappelling we touched base and entered ground where we could more or less walk upright. It was completely dark and we were of course rather tired from this long day.
With a smile on our faces we entered our camp site and released our ropes and harnesses.
The hike back through the valley was uneventful but smooth. I remember specifically when we took a break in the middle of some raspberry bushes. Suddenly all four of us were picking those delicious berries and forgot about time. Aleks arranged that the guy with the truck picked us up at the end of the trail end and so we could enjoy a cool ride on a typical Russian terrain vehicle the last kilometers.
When driving up in front of the hotel, Aleks quickly dug into the backseat of his parked car and pulled out some bottles of the Russian beer Baltika. Although not the least chilled, we enjoyed our beers and ended the climb in a very descent and traditional alpine way with a big “nastrovje”!
Later that evening we had a nice meal all together in one of the restaurants in the little village. Many skewers of shashlik went down that evening. Aleks told us about his upcoming plans to go to the Alps in autumn to climb the Lion ridge of Matterhorn, Andi revealed his plans to return to the Caucasus next year to climb Khalaca in South Ossetia and I was having Kazbek on my mind. Where one climb ends, dreams of the next one are being born…